Patch Adams and Therapy
“You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win, no matter what the outcome.”—Patch Adams
I am sitting here watching the movie Patch Adams tonight as I have many times. Tonight, however, this film takes on a whole new meaning in a couple of different ways. Bare with me while I try to convey the importance of this film as it relates to therapy. While Robin Williams was always a personal favorite actor and comedian, this particular movie rings loud and clear in several ways to me.
Firstly, while having the dreams of being a doctor, he still wants to have strong human connections. In the movie, he compares medical school to being in the marines due to a lecture on transference. Throughout the movie you see him trying to find that balance by using some very unconventional yet amusing tactics. One particular scene shows him doing student rounds with a senior doctor and he begins talking to a group of students about a patient’s condition right in front of the patient. Robin Williams, who plays Patch Adams, additionally wants to know the patient’s name. He introduces himself and calls her by name and instantly a connection is made.
In my undergraduate studies at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, MS we were also taught about transference and professional distance with clients. The truth is that transference is inevitable. Every human being has some type of impact on another’s life. One of my professors told us in a lecture something that will always stick with me….”Your clients are people first. Then, they have a diagnosis.” Probably some of the most valuable information that I have ever been able to use when I worked with addicts. We are also taught to leave personal or outside issues at home. The thing that I’ve learned the hard way is that…well…I’m a human being. While great in theory, it’s not completely possible. Is it possible to leave enough at home and still function professionally and ethically?….YES.
As a recovering addict, had I not seen the ‘human side’ of my inpatient therapist, Sarah Pardue at such a crucial time, I would’ve never listened to her then which might’ve ended my life from some form of drug overdose. It doesn’t mean that she didn’t have professional and personal healthy boundaries. You can’t really put into words what the connection is like. It’s a very safe and scary feeling all at one time. For 90 days, I got to see a professional who was a human being that also had feelings and emotions. She was always one of the most ethical and respectable professionals that I’ve EVER come in contact with. When I became her student several years later, her humanity was still there and I was completely astonished that she was still able to maintain that after so many years in the therapy field while at times bombs were going off around her. What a positive impact her example set for me professionally.
Lastly, as a trauma survivor, I have to see that a therapist is a person before they’re a professional. Remember, because of my trauma and education, I can read people and their body language very well. This became a survival tool that has worked to my advantage in the counseling field. Any sign of inconsistencies and red flags are flashing, neon signs. I watch everything everywhere and at all times.
Processing trauma takes an enormous amount of trust with professionals. After all, the goal is to share some of the scariest topics and information with someone who is a complete stranger. And if someone we’ve known for a large part of our lives betrayed our trust in vile ways, how are we expected to trust a complete stranger with a degree? Every single day you can turn on the local news and see flaming examples of abuse of power. I have watched as people portrayed themselves as one thing and their true colors sprint out of the closet just like I did when I ‘came out’ about being gay. Yea it stings. But, then it hurts. And eventually, you will look down and find scars. So, needless to say, it takes me a very long time to trust people…..period.
While working with clients, I’m not ashamed at all to say that I’ve cried with my clients at times. Did I let this interfere with the professional therapeutic relationship? Not at all. I still had professional and personal boundaries. Some would possibly see this as not having emotional boundaries thus being unethical. Ask some of my former clients and they would tell you that their ‘therapist’ was a human being just like they are. Ultimately, isn’t the goal of therapy or medicine to improve ‘quality of life?’